Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 1

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 1
THE PRESENT POLITICAL SITUATION: – Louis-Philippe



Paris, Rue d’Enfer, 1837
(Revised, June 1847)

If, as I pass from the politics of the Legitimacy to politics in general, I re-read what I published on those politics in the years 1831, 1832, and 1833, my predictions have been accurate enough.

Louis-Philippe is an intelligent man whose tongue is set in motion by a torrent of commonplaces. He pleases a Europe which reproaches us for not recognising his worth; England loves to see that we, like her, have dethroned a king; the other sovereigns have deserted the Legitimacy which they have not found obedient. Philippe dominates those about him; he toys with his Ministers; he appoints them, dismisses them, re-appoints them, and dismisses them once more, having compromised them, if anything these days can compromise anyone.

Philippe’s superiority is real, but it is only relative; place him in an age when society was vibrant, and the mediocrity within would be revealed. Two passions detract from his qualities: his exclusive love for his children, and his insatiable desire to increase his wealth: on those two matters he will always show blindness.

Philippe does not feel for France’s honour as the elder branch of the Bourbons do; he has no need of honour: he has no fear of popular uprisings as those nearest to Louis XVI feared them. He is protected by his father’s murder; hatred for wealth does not touch him: he is an accomplice not a victim.

Understanding the exhaustion of the age and the baseness of men’s souls, Philippe takes comfort from the situation. Legal intimidation has suppressed our freedoms, as I predicted at the time of my farewell speech to the Chamber of Peers, and nothing has lessened it; arbitrary powers have been employed; murder has been done in the Rue Transnonain, protesters bombarded at Lyons, numerous prosecutions begun against the Press; citizens arrested and held in prison for months or years as a preventative measure, to public applause. The country, weary, no longer understanding anything, endures everything. There is scarcely a man one could not set against himself. Month after month, year after year, we have written, spoken and acted in a manner completely contrary to the way we have formerly written, spoken and acted. Through being forced to blush we no longer blush; our self-contradictions escape our notice, they have multiplied so. To end discussion we take the position of affirming that we have never changed, or that we have only changed through progressive modification of our ideas and through our century’s clarification of our understanding. The rapidity of events has aged us so swiftly that when we recall our actions of past days, we seem to be speaking of others rather than ourselves; and then, to have changed is only to have done as everyone else has.

Philippe did not believe, as the restored monarchy did, that he was obliged to control every village in order to rule; he judged it sufficient to be master of Paris; now, if he could only put the capital on a war footing with an annual quota of sixty thousand praetorian guards, he would believe himself safe. Europe would allow it because he would persuade the sovereigns that he was acting with a view to stifling revolution in his old cradle, depositing as a guarantee, in the hands of foreigners, France’s liberty, independence and honour. Philippe is a police-sergeant: Europe might spit in his face, he would wipe it, say thank you, and show his royal patent. However, he is the only prince the French are currently capable of tolerating. The debasement of elected leadership is his strength: we find enough in him, momentarily, to satisfy our royalist habits and our democratic tendency; we obey a power that we think we have the right to insult; that is all we need of liberty: a nation on its knees, we snuffle round our master, privilege re-established at his feet, equality in his face. Cynical and cunning, a Louis XI for the age of philosophy, our chosen monarch skilfully sails his boat over a sea of mud. The elder branch of Bourbons has withered save for one bud; the younger branch is rotten. The leader inaugurated at City Hall thinks only of self; he sacrifices the French to what he believes to be his own security. When people discuss what is necessary for our country’s greatness, they forget the sovereign’s character; he is persuaded that he will perish by the very means which would save France; according to him, what would ensure the survival of the monarchy would destroy the king. Moreover, none have the right to hold him in contempt, since everyone is equally contemptible. But, in the final analysis, whatever prosperity he dreams of, neither he nor his children will prosper, because he abandons the people who brought him everything. Yet on the other hand, legitimate kings, abandoning legitimate kings, will fall: one cannot renounce principles with impunity. If Revolution has for an instant deviated from its course, it will no less add to the torrent that undermines the ancient edifice: no one has played his part, no one will be saved.

Since power among us is inviolable, since the hereditary sceptre has fallen to the ground four times in thirty-eight years, since the royal fillet tied by victory has twice been unbound from Napoleon’s head, since the July monarchy has been increasingly assailed, one must conclude that it is monarchy and not the Republic which is untenable.

France is under the domination of an ideal inimical to the throne: a crown whose authority is at first recognised, which is then trodden underfoot, then picked up to be trodden underfoot again, is no more than a vain temptation and a symbol of disorder. A master is imposed on men who appear to demand him for memory’s sake but will not support him morally; he is imposed on generations who, having forgotten social moderation and decency, know only how to insult the royal personage or replace respect with servility.

Philippe has within him something that hinders destiny; he has nothing within him that can halt it. The democratic party alone advances, because it is marching towards the future. Those who will not concede the general trends which are destroying the basis for monarchy will seek in vain for action from the Chambers to free us from the yoke; the Chambers will not consent to reform because reform would signal their death. The industrialised opposition, for its part, will never willingly bring the king products from its factories, as it did Charles X; it shifts about to create room for itself, it whines, and is difficult; but when it finds itself face to face with Philippe, it retreats, since though it wants to gain control of affairs, it does not want to reverse what it has created and what it lives for. Two fears inhibit it: fear of the Legitimacy’s return, fear of populist rule; it sticks to Philippe whom it does not love, but whom it treats as a protector. Satisfied by wealth and work, abdicating its will, the opposition obeys what it knows to be worthless and sleeps in the mud; that is the bed of down invented by an industrial century; it is not as pleasant but it costs less.

Notwithstanding all that, a sovereignty of a few months, or even a few years if you wish, will not alter the irrevocable future. There is hardly anyone now who does not consider the Legitimacy preferable to the usurpation, in terms of security, liberty, property, and foreign relations, since the principle behind our current monarchy is inimical in principle to European sovereignty. Though it pleased him to accept the investiture of the throne, at the pleasure of, and with the sure methods of democracy, Philippe has forgotten his point of departure: he should have leapt onto his horse and galloped to the Rhine, or rather he should have resisted the impulse that carried him to a crown regardless of conditions: the most durable and fitting institutions emerge from such resistance.

It is said that: ‘Monsieur le Duc d’Orléans could not have rejected the crown without plunging us into appalling problems’: the logic of cowards, dupes and rogues. Doubtless conflict would have occurred; but it would have been followed by a swift return to order. What has Philippe done for the country? Would there have been more blood spilt by his refusing the sceptre, in Paris, Lyons, Anvers and in the Vendée, than has been shed by his accepting it, without taking into account the rivers of blood that have flowed on account of our elective monarchy in Poland, Italy, Portugal and Spain? Has Philippe given us liberty, in compensation for these ills? Has he brought us glory? He has spent his time begging for legitimisation by the powers that be, degrading France by making her a servant of England, and leaving her a hostage; he has tried to make the century come to him, and render him and his race venerable, not wishing to renew himself with the century.

Why did he not marry his eldest son to some lovely plebeian girl of his own country? That would have been to wed France herself; that union of the people and royalty would have made foreign kings repent; since those kings, who have already taken advantage of Philippe’s subservience, will not be content with what they have gained: that popular power which is revealed behind our municipal monarchy terrifies them. The monarch of the barricades, in order to be completely acceptable to absolute monarchs, must above all destroy freedom of the Press and abolish our constitutional institutions. In the depths of his soul, he detests them as much as they do, but he has to act in moderation. All this procrastination irritates other monarchs; they cannot be made to tolerate it except by our giving way to them completely abroad: to accustom us to being Philippe’s bondsmen at home, we have begun by becoming the vassals of Europe.

I have said a hundred times and I will repeat it once more, the old society is dead. I am not enough of a common man, not enough of a charlatan, not deceived enough in my hopes, to take the least interest in what now exists. France, the most mature of present-day nations, will probably be first among them. It is likely that the elder branch of the Bourbons, whom I will support until death, will even now obtain scant shelter from the old monarchy. The successors of a murdered monarch have never worn his torn robe for long; there is mistrust on both sides: the prince no longer dares trust the nation; the nation cannot believe that a restored family will show forgiveness. A scaffold raised between a people and its king prevents them seeing one another: there are graves which never close. The head of Capet was so high, that the diminutive executioners were obliged to cut it off to take his crown, as the Caribs cut down a palm tree to gather its fruit. The Bourbon stock was propagated in various stems around it; it put out branches which in bowing took root in the earth and rose again as proud offshoots: that family, after having been the pride of other royal races, seems to have become their fate.

But would it be reasonable to believe that Philippe’s descendants have a greater chance of reigning than Henri IV’s young descendant? It is fine to combine diverse political concepts, but moral truth remains immutable. There is an inevitable reaction, educative, magisterial, and vengeful. The monarch who initiated our freedom was forced to expiate in his own person Louis XIV’s despotism and Louis XV’s corruption; and who is to say that Louis-Philippe, he or his descendants, will not pay a debt for the Regency’s depravations? Was that debt not contracted anew by Egalité on Louis XVI’s scaffold, and has not Philippe his son added to the paternal debt, when, as a disloyal tutor, he dethroned his pupil? Egalité bought nothing in the losing of his life; tears at the moment of death purchase nought: they merely wet the breast, but do not fall on conscience’s soil. If the Orléans branch were to reign by virtue of the vices and crimes of its ancestors, where then would Providence be? No more terrible temptation would ever have tried men of goodwill. Our illusion is that we can weigh the eternal design in the scale of our short life: we vanish too swiftly for God’s punishment always to occur in the brief moment of our existence; punishment descends at the right moment; it no longer strikes the initial offender, but strikes his race which provides it with space to act.

In the universal scheme of things, Louis-Philippe’s reign, whatever its duration, will be no more than an anomaly, a momentary offence against the enduring laws of justice: they are violated, those laws, in a narrow and relative way; they are followed in a limitless and general one. From an enormity apparently consented to by Heaven, one must draw the greatest of consequences: one must deduce a Christian proof of the coming abolition of royalty itself. It is that abolition, not some individual punishment, which must expiate Louis XVI’s death; no one will be allowed, according to this exercise of justice, to wear the crown, witness Napoleon the Great, and Charles X the Pious. It may have been permitted for the son of a regicide to lie down for a moment, in imitation of kingship, on a martyr’s blood-stained bed, in order to render monarchy odious.

Finally, all this reasoning, correct though it may be, will never weaken my loyalty to my young King: if I am all that is left to him in France, I will be forever proud to have been the last subject of one who may be the last king.